July  1998 
 Number 45 



The Power of Faith; Ajahn Viradhammo
Don't Lose Your Wits; Ajahn Siripa˝˝a
Maurice O'Connell Walshe; A Tribute
Mealy Redpolls & on Being Content
The best Wealth; Ajahn Candasiri
Signs of Change:


The Power of Faith
Taken from a talk on the spiritual powers given by Ajahn Viradhammo, Amaravati Winter Retreat, January 1998.

I was thinking about the five powers: saddhaa, viriya, sati, samaadhi and pannaa. Our teacher, Luang Por Sumedho, told me that during his first year in Thailand he used this sequence as a mantra. He'd just recite this formula over and over and over again: saddhaa, viriya, sati, samaadhi and pannaa - partially just to stop his mind. He wasn't even sure what it meant, but he just used it as a mantra to concentrate on. Then later on he began to contemplate the meaning of the words: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.

The way of contemplation is like that. We bring a teaching into our hearts, not in merely academic terms but in a way where the teaching begins to work on us. It somehow percolates through us. It affects us, it informs us and we see things through the teachings more and more. Our sharing of Dhamma can be very rich, but if it's just in intellectual terms, we sometimes get confused. We try to get it right in our head and then we swing between intellectual assurity and doubt, and it just goes on and on. But the way of contemplation is to take a teaching and actually bring it into your heart.


The way of contemplation is like that. We bring a teaching into our hearts, not inmerely academic terms but in a way where the teaching begins to work on us.

Luang Por said he did this contemplation of the five powers for a long time. A whole year just chanting: saddhaa, viriya etc. You can imagine that if you take something like that and just chant it over and over again, it's going to start coming up in your mind. You're going to ponder: "What is faith? What does that mean? What does that word mean to me? What does it mean in the texts?" So then you go to the texts, you talk to someone else, you hear a teacher talk about it; and of course that stimulates your contemplation, and then your inclination. Faith is obviously very important to monastic life. How do we carry this life? How do we make it a life-style, rather than just an event? Obviously monastic life is different from a ten-day retreat. Retreats are a very good thing, but to actually live this life as we do - day in and day out, year after year - is a whole different ball-game. It's different from just being inspired for ten days; it takes a lot of faith to do this.

Some people find that it doesn't work for them, and that's fair enough. But actually this isn't a life-style for very many people anyway. I think that one of the problems that Westerners might have with it is cynicism because if anything is going to wipe your faith out, it's cynicism - which seems very clever. You talk to a faith person, they seem pretty simple, whereas the cynic with their views and opinions can be very clever. The faith-oriented person won't have a chance with a cynic, unless they too are very clever, and sharp and fast. They'll say, "Well, I just love the teaching..." and then the cynic will have some retort to that!

I've suffered a lot from cynicism. To have clever views and opinions seemed like a very powerful thing: to be able to put other people down, to be able to judge everyone and find fault with everyone - it has a kind of power. But it's very alienating power; it's a lonely kind of power, and it doesn't make for much happiness. And yet to be clever, to have sharp opinions, can be an important thing in our society. To see what's wrong is an easy thing to do, compared with a life of faith. But what does a life of faith require? What is faith? What sustains your faith? What makes your faith grow?

For me, it's a matter of putting a lot into this life, really going for it. That has always been something that's increased my faith. When I first met the teaching, I thought: "If you're going to do this you're just going to have to do it, you can't muck about with this!" There's a lot of work involved, and to do it only 50% just doesn't make any sense to me. If you're going to do it, really do it! And yet you can't just meditate all the time. How many of us could meditate for the next six years? You may think, "Oh yes, just a bit more", but how many people could sustain a formal silent retreat for six years? Very few. So you can't meditate constantly, you need a whole life-style, I think.

Traditionally, a tudong monk would spend some time wandering, living in rice fields, and then ending up in some village monastery where everyone is playing bingo; and then, escaping from there, he'd struggle at living in a forest. Tudong life is very hard physically, if you're doing it full on. And then he might get into a forest monastery and do a lot of formal practice - sitting practice, study - and then go tudong again, which would be more like survival practice, surviving the mosquitoes! In the little time that I spent doing this just getting a meal for the day was tough, or finding a place to bed down which wasn't full of ants, or getting some water; just to physically survive was an occupation. We don't have that here, we have a different kind of pattern. We have responsibilities, a very big community; we serve a lot, we give a lot, do maintenance work, receive guests and wash dishes! So the sort of pattern here at Amaravati is one where you have social situations and you have retreat situations. Our tudong isn't looking for water - it's more like looking for silence and space.

Now it's time to give ourselves fully to this retreat. Then, when the Sangha Gathering comes or there's maintenance work in the viharas, we give ourselves fully to that. But the cynical mind often resists. The critical mind is always realising how it should be different - how the retreat should be different, or thinking: "Now is not the time for a retreat, now's the time to build something"; or, when it's time to work, it can think: "Now it's time to do meditation." There's a resistance to what has to be done. But a full giving of oneself with generosity, and the practice of metta - these are important parts of the faith mind. Notice how, when you ask a cynical person to do metta, they can get really resistant and say it's smarmy and `wet', and that it's not really wisdom. Notice in yourself if you find resistance to metta - to just saying: "May I be free from suffering..." - that's cynicism. That's what blocks metta and generosity, these aspects of the faith mind.

To live this life, to make this a life-style rather than just an event, I think we need some way to express ourselves. We have energy, we have talents, gifts - and to use these with some sense of service and generosity is tremendously sustaining and nourishing. But it has to be done with wisdom; just to give without any sense of one's own needs would be foolishness, not giving. So giving should not come out of pressure: "You must give, you must serve..." not that kind of nonsense - but because it's right and it's wholesome, because you realise that that is the way to use this mind and body. This is very much a part of faith.

In the traditional sense, faith is that there is transcendence, that the apparent isn't all that there is; that there was a Buddha, and that there is Enlightenment - that there is transcendence, that there is an end to suffering. That, for me, is a very important part of faith: that there is some profound insight which humanity has the possibility to realise - and it is always here and now. It's not a matter of time, or a matter of place, or situation. It's always here and now. And so what I have used for that quite often is to imagine Ajahn Chah sitting beside me, and I ask him: "Well, Luang Por, how would you handle this situation?" "What do you think Luang Por, is there any hope?" And I know darned well he'd say: "You'd better sit through this one and figure it out. This is something you've got to learn from." Or I'd imagine the Buddha beside me and ask: "What do you think? Is there a way out of suffering?..." That has always helped me to bring forth the faith mind - that there is a way out of suffering, here and now, and it's something that I have to realise.

Because all of us - whether we're monastics or lay people - we're going to face a lot of stuff, you just can't get around it. People are going to insult us, we're going to get sick, all kinds of things are going to happen to us. There are going to be disappointments, betrayals, all kinds of things; it's going to happen in monastic life, and in married life too. So what keeps us going through all that?... I don't want to sound pessimistic or negative, but although I've been in perfect monasteries, which had the best lay support and good monastic support, I haven't seen one where there aren't problems: misunderstandings, conflicts, sickness, a bit of death here and there. Life is that way, so if one puts all one's faith in an inspiring teacher, then when they die or go to another monastery - if that is your faith, your going to suffer. Teachers are fine, but they're not a refuge; it's got to be deeper than that. So our refuge in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha is quite hard to understand.

What does it mean to have faith in the Sangha vehicle? Well, it doesn't mean you necessarily like it. How long is that going to last - ten minutes?... "I really love everyone here, all the time" or, "I love Theravada Buddhism." Faith is certainly not a matter of liking; it's something deeper than that. If having faith in the Sangha were just a matter of us as personalities, I'm sure most of us would like to shuffle the deck a little bit - put a few more jokers in! So the Sangha vehicle is not the people you like, but rather the Sangha that we're living with. These are the beings who aspire to Enlightenment, whether you like them or not. We will have conflicts, we'll have difficulties, we'll disagree, we'll see things differently, but this is who we've got. This is the family: these are your uncles and aunties, your brothers and sisters, these are the ones you live with and work with. And what does surrender to that mean? It means that while I'm here, this is where I'm going to find freedom...rather than thinking that I'd be happier off, if A,B,C and D left, and we got another batch in and somehow made it a perfect place.

So refuge in the Sangha is not a personality trip. It's not about finding a sympathetic friend or relationship, but it's broadening the heart to practice with these people. Within that of course one is faced with all kinds of difficulties. One can feel very judgmental, or critical about some; one can feel intimidated by or just downright bored with others.

So what is surrender? What is giving up to the vehicle? It's having the faith that peace is here and now, in this situation, with these people not with anyone else. And that takes a lot of work because there's resistance, there's love and hate, preferences, all these things that we go through. That's why metta is so important; it's hard to accept everyone just the way they are.

This is all within the context of vinaya. We have our rules and boundaries that we all have to observe and obey, and if we break those boundaries then we're called for it. This is what allows us to contemplate the aspiration of each person, rather than the personality; it provides a different perspective. Say a person's going through some kind of difficult situation and they're dumping it on you, and you feel you want to leave the monastery, or whatever, then think: "How can I help this person with their aspiration?" That takes a real strength doesn't it, to see that this person, even though they might be difficult now, also aspires to Nibbaana - otherwise they wouldn't be here. So how can I help them in that aspiration?

It's not a worldly way. The worldly way is to perceive through personality view, through preferences, and with the judging mind - if you're sitting at breakfast and cynically looking at everyone, you think: "There's that one slurping their gruel again" or "Look at that one mixing his muesli with his tea. That's disgusting." Or you think: "Oh no, got to go to gruel again, have to sit by those people..." this is very destructive of the Holy Life. It takes away joy, it takes away love; it takes away the ability to sustain this life. Our criticisms might be true at some rational level, but do they bring any kind of joy or happiness? The religious view is one where we're looking at each other in a different way and trying to help each other's aspirations. So can I use the critical faculty to see: "How I can help this person? How can I make this person's life more beautiful? How can I help them through this difficult time? How can I help them bear with their own difficulties?..."

And taking refuge in Dhamma, what is that? We can reflect on it as here and now, not a matter of time, something each individual has to realise for themselves; and that there is the unconditioned, the unoriginated, the unformed; that suffering is something here and now, that I can let go of - there are these different ways of contemplating Dhamma as a refuge. Of course insight is important in this and so we find that the more we really contemplate Dhamma, the more we bring those ideas into consciousness, the more the faith moves to confidence.

It really moves to a steadiness of mind which knows Nature, rather than having views and opinions about it. It knows a judgement as a judgement; it knows a perception of your brother or sister as just a perception, rather than Ultimate Truth. That's a big relief, isn't it? The perception I have of you is just a conditioned thing, it's not who you really are; it just happens to be how the mind is creating you right now. It's not Ultimate Truth. But if we believe in the perception of each other, then of course we get all this arrogance and competitiveness, lack of forgiveness - and a lot of suffering. So to know that the nature of perceptions and concepts is just arising and ceasing, and therefore uncertain, is to have refuge in Dhamma, rather than believing in our endless views and opinions.

Refuge in Buddha: people who have come from Buddhist cultures have a head start; they already have a natural devotion to the Buddha and the lineage. Their challenge is often that they believe too easily; whereas for us the challenge is cynicism. So to bring faith, we ask: Who is the Buddha? And what is his lineage?... It's good to recollect people like Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho and the whole lineage of practitioners, to consider that there are people who seek and love Truth. Also, that there is Truth, there is transcendence. This is very important; this is what the Buddha represents, and that which is Buddha-like in all of us. The world is not the be-all and end-all. Sense experience, sights and sounds and tastes are not the be-all and end-all. For me, that sense of transcendence is very important - otherwise the world seems so important and so compelling.

So these are different ways to look at faith - and the lack of it. So much of the energy, the viriya in the Holy Life is just about getting out of the gravitational pull of habit, in which the mind is forever criticising and judging, or fantasising in an endless dirge of self-views. So consider what brings you joy in this life? What crushes your heart? What makes your heart feel like a flat tyre? Certainly, endlessly looking at yourself in critical ways is going to defeat you. Self-disparagement, and looking at others in that way is going to make life miserable and fearful with a lot of alienation and separation - faith, metta and generosity are intuitive energies. These are the energies which help you keep going.

Ajahn Viradhammo